They’re off before I can even say goodbye or, “Have a good day.” Their heads bob through the crowds of kids and parents. Just before they merge into the crowd of kids streaming through the front door of school, I see them grab each other’s hands. One doesn’t reach out first: They reach for each other at the same time, then disappear.
I stand still for a moment, standing up on my tiptoes to try and catch a glimpse of their thick black-brown hair or lime green backpacks. If I can just see a piece of them before they disappear, I can send one last good wish and an invisible hug with them as they start their days. But it’s impossible; too many kids have filled in the gaps between them and me.
I catch myself longing for these moments to stay still just a little longer, but it seems impossible against the frenetic energy bottled up inside my two boys. Even the times when they’re bickering and whining, being kids who are both seen and definitely heard, I want time to move in slow motion.
It’s in these moments that I see my kids deep in the process of becoming real people, figuring out how the world works, asking questions and developing their internal compasses. It’s like when you’re drawing, and suddenly the lines and smudges start to emerge in relief as three-dimensional figures on the page. My kids are rising up in fuller definition.
Before this, there were so many moments I wanted to fast forward through, the endless physicality of parenting. The cycle of diapering, feeding, burping and inconsistent sleep on repeat. When it seemed like everyone I knew wanted to freeze those moments of baby thighs, I was scared I would be swallowed up whole by my babies, that they would hide me within the never-ending folds of chubby cheeks and neck.
Growing up, I never played with dolls. Stuffed animals, yes, but not dolls. I never mothered my stuffed animals, either. I was terrified of my firstborn. Whenever I could extract myself from his tangled limbs, I fled the apartment, bursting through the front doors and stinking of sour milk. It didn’t matter where I walked as long as I walked away from my apartment. But each second that ticked away until I had to return home felt like bricks laid one by one on my chest. Some days I dreamed that I would keep walking without looking back.
When my son was 16-months-old, my husband left on a business trip. A few hours after he left in his black car service sedan, my son’s neediness and my anxiety were so thick I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to jump out of my skin. I carried my son to his crib, closed the door and grabbed my phone.
“I hate this.” Those were the first words out of my mouth when my husband answered his phone. “I hate this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this! He won’t shut up. He’s driving me crazy. I don’t want to do this anymore.” The words seared my chest. They were hot and painful but true. “If he doesn’t stop crying, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
After we hung up, my husband got on the next flight and flew home.
Those were days and ages when I didn’t want to pause. I needed to rush through those stages for my own sanity and that of my family. Maybe I needed to get through those days so fast so I could get to this point where I feel less like I’m playing dress-up as a mother, and the anxiety doesn’t rise up like a sour taste in my throat. I now resist the rush forward that has propelled me through my parenting years up until this point as much for me as for my kids.
I find my kids at school pickup emerging through the crowds just as quickly as they disappeared in the morning. As we walk home, I listen as they float easily into conversation with each other and alternately chase each other down the sidewalk. A grin inches across my face as I realize that I don’t feel anxious. We have found a natural rhythm together. We take a detour through the playground so they can continue playing tag. After all, we’re not in a rush to get anywhere.